A woman returns to Cuba after several years of absence. She does so to care for her father, who is already old and sick – who’s intention is unknown to her -, and discovers a country different from the one she left.
This is the plot of 25 horas (25 Hours), a film directed by Carlos Barba Salva and the only Cuban short contesting in the last Havana International New Latin American Film Festival.
With this project, Carlos – who is from Guantánamo but lives in Los Angeles, California – made his debut in the field of fiction with the backing of experienced artists like Isabel Santos and Enrique Pineda Barnet.
The filmmaker spoke to OnCuba about the motivations and schemes of his film.
What drove you to make 25 horas?
I believe it has to do with wanting to tell a story where both worlds are combined: that of the island and that of the Cubans abroad. I have always thought that the land that gives shelter to an immigrant is also his homeland and I have seen many Cubans return to the island with great happiness, but at the same time missing that other country where they created a family, dreams, new lives. I’m interested in dealing with that aspect.
This is a topic about which a feature length could be made but what I wanted (and could) was to shoot a fiction short, trying to create some complex characters from the very simplicity of their actions, with few dialogues and incorporating flashes of daily life in those 24 minutes of its duration. That’s why I had to choose very exact symbols like the family, food, public transportation, friendship, health and even dance; and placing the characters in an extreme situation and a current historical moment; a sick father and an émigré who misses her apartment in New York but, let’s be clear, is taking care of her father.
Up to now you had developed your work in the documentary genre. Why leave that comfort zone and take the road of fiction?
I feel comfortable with the documentary but I wanted to test myself in other genres, to detach myself a bit from what I had done and seek other languages, even though making a documentary is still scary because it entails a reinterpretation of a figure, of a theme, of a reality. But I wanted to scare myself more. In addition, is there a filmmaker who isn’t attracted to directing fiction?
The fiction filmmaker is a bit of a magician: he writes a script in the most absolute solitude and, with luck, a short while later the actors assume his words, give them a house to live in, a profession, a neighbor and a conflict to defend or live. I tell you all this with the most absolute certainty that 25 horas came out with a breath of the documentary, it’s probably because it’s not easy to get out of the comfort zones. When I look at the characters in detail or how I came up with adding a sequence at the end after having spent months shooting, there is where the breath of the documentary maker is, which chases me and from which it’s not easy to detach. How do you document real life when that reality increasingly looks like fiction?
How was the shooting and postproduction process; their complexities and satisfaction?
We filmed with four actors, two non-actors, a small staff, all of them wonderful, a camera and one light. We spent a weekend shut away for a few hours on Saturday and the same on Sunday, which should add up to a total of 25. We did everything in El Vedado and its environs and we only had a location in Jaimanitas. I asked the director of photography, Carlos Rafael Solís, for what I called an intermediate image, greyish, with “non-brilliance,” and I believe that this strengthens the sense of the story, a day in the life of these characters. We created our own geography.
Then in Los Angeles, with Xperima Productions, we finished the film. The sound design and mix was done in Churubusco, Mexico and I’m very happy with the composers Markus Moser and Niuska Miniet, who crowned it with their music. Julioeloy Mesa, an already classic designer of Cuban cinema contributed his poster with a very beautiful graphic interpretation.
How did you feel directing figures like Isabel Santos and Pineda Barnet?
The day of the premiere in the Havana Film Festival I said I had had the luck of making this film with my family, and it is true. I had an exceptional duo of leading actors, Isabel Santos and Enrique Pineda Barnet, who are like my mother and older brother (it’s very hard for me to call Enrique my father). I was fortunate to have them. In addition, Enrique hadn’t acted for some time and the chemistry with Isabel was immediate.
However, despite the fact that they are figures who have an immense work and that a great deal of familiarity was demanded between us, since the day of the first call I found two super disciplined, respectful artists who let me do and waited for my proposals as we advanced in the shooting. All their advises remained in our most intimate talks, but on the set they were in front of their director, which is something I will always be thankful to them. I can say the same of actors Alicia Bustamante, who was making a soap opera at that time and during her lunch break she gave me her presence, and Carlos Alberto Méndez, who plays the role of the young man with the kite.
How did you assume dealing with the theme of emigration and its previous treatment in the Cuban audiovisual?
I did not distance myself from it. I admire and appreciate the Cuban films I have seen that deal with that reality. Emigration is the most sensitive drama we have had to live with as a nation, the family breakup, the distance, to get to the family reunifications be it from one side or the other, and it seems logical to me that it be a recurrent theme. However, I was interested in the character that returns estranged, who looks at the surrounding with a magnifying glass, who, although she “accepts” that reality, sounds it out, takes pictures, makes an effort to insert herself and afterwards chooses to return to the place that adopted her. Isabel gave a very good idea of that complexity when faced by decisions and disillusionment.
One person said to me: “Things on the other side are neither a bed of roses because even her dog died,” because there’s a moment in which the leading actress says she got a call to give her that news. Her interpretation seemed logical to me because she didn’t try to sweeten things.
The characters live the historic date of December 17, 2014 when the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States was announced. That’s why I also wanted to visualize the divided opinions that emerged after that news through the positions of Hilda and her father.
How did you live the premiere of the film in Havana during the New Latin American Film Festival?
The festival and I have the same age, so you can just imagine, it was a great present to be able to premiere the short in Havana. But above all, I appreciated the opportunity of confronting it with the Cuban public. I remember the public’s silence and attention in the Acapulco movie theater the first night, how the people interacted with the film with great respect, with great backing.
At the end, from the lobby to the sidewalk it was very moving, I met colleagues and actors from a generation I admire and they had such words of praise. And on the following day in the Yara movie theater, which also has a very sincere, very dialoguing public, the audience received the short in a very lovely way. As I like to say, they understood the risk.
Tell me about the short’s international tour until now and your plans. Can it be seen at another time in Cuba?
The short was in the official selection of the Latin and Iberian Film Festival in Yale University, in Connecticut; its first world premier took place there. This is a space that greatly interests me, directed by Margherita Tortora, a great lover of Cuban and Iberian-American cinema and who provides filmmakers with a privileged opportunity. From New Haven I went directly to premiere it in Havana. Now there are negotiations to screen it again in Cuba, in movie theaters or on television, something I expect will be agreed on. But like all films, 25 horas has its own life and will also walk on its own.
Was 25 horas the first step of a new creative course in your career?
I expect so. I’ve never stopped working, but it’s difficult to know which will be the next safe port I will get to with my projects, and not just because of the usual slogan that “cinema is art but also industry.” I continue working with Enrique Pineda Barnet on a joint script which we titled “Mi Virgen de la Caridad” (My Lady of Charity). I am also writing a story at the request of the great German actress Hanna Schygulla, which has got me very excited, and I have other ideas I am developing for two shorts. I know I have been touched by fiction.
Isabel Santos is the protagonist of 25 horas, the Hilda who returns to Cuba to care for her father. With a renowned career in and outside Cuba, she did not hesitate, however, in answering Carlos Barba’s call.
The actress told OnCuba how and why she got to the short.
Why did you bet on a director without experience in fiction?
Let’s start with a bit of history: one day, while shooting the film Barrio Cuba, I commented to Carlos Barba that some directors and journalists had approached me to make a documentary, a book…where I would tell how I became an actress, and I remember the two of us sitting on a small stairway in the Salón Rosado of La Tropical, talking between one scene and another while Los Van Van were playing live, and I asked him that it be he who would tell my story. I believe some two months went by and as if it were an act of magic Rafael Solís and I were already in Santiago de Cuba shooting that beautiful documentary that is Mujer que espera (Woman Who Waits).
A year before I had given Carlos a long interview for a magazine. He knocked on my door recommended by our common friend Humberto Solás, who said to me: “Meet him, that young man has a great deal of talent.” Years have gone by and that young man went from being a friend to a member of my small family, so you can see how well I know and love him.
I don’t make films looking at a director’s curriculum. I make them because the story has to interest me and because of the talent I see in the person I have in front of me. I know how to capture that when I sit in my living room and read the script being proposed to me. In the case of 25 horas, I saw how the project was born.
How was the process of constructing the character?
I always listened to Carlos, I let myself be directed. He can ask you for things like: “put on these earrings” or “I want you to come out or to move this way and not the other,” since he knows a lot my pictures; as a director he knows what he doesn’t want and he is very clear about what he wants.
I believe that we are all a bit that character and a constructed Hilda based on that truth. In a country like Cuba in which we become the parents of our parents, a country that is rapidly aging, we are all caregivers, companions of our loved ones. I always say that 25 horas is one of those races you make with the pleasure that in the end a smiling youth looks at you in front of his first fiction take, knowing that he would be at your side so you would give him all in a single run around the track.
Being a renowned and loved actress in Cuba, how did you experience the reception by the public in the Havana Festival?
The day of the premiere I first had this short and later came another of my films, Los buenos demonios (The Good Demons), by Gerardo Chijona. The end of 25 horas is very special and look here, I cried when the credits started coming up. I’m always greatly moved when my films are at last premiered, but I was also moved because of the lovely welcome the public gave it. The movie theater was full and the applause was great. I know when things are liked and that night when I sat down in my home’s terrace I was able to tell him: “Carlos, participating in the Havana Festival and having those applauses is the biggest prize.”
That’s why he can always count on me, on my complicity, on my support. If he has a character for me, no matter which, I’ll be there.